The Nakba: You Are There

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Mar 30, 2011

A Film by Julian Schnabel
A Pathé, Canal+, et al. production
In Arabic and Hebrew with English titles and English

April, 1948: A street in Jerusalem, British Palestine Mandate. Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbas), daughter of a wealthy Palestinian family, comes across a crowd of weeping children and tries to send them back to their homes. But they have no homes to return to; they are the orphan survivors of a massacre at a Palestinian village called Deir Yessin.

Somewhere in the State of Israel, not long after the Six-Day War of 1967: A nurse named Fatima (Ruba Blal) brings a bomb into a movie theater; the bomb fails to explode, but Fatima is sentenced to three consecutive life terms—two for setting the bomb and the third for refusing to stand to be sentenced.

A bus in Jerusalem, the early ’70s: The beautiful belly dancer Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri) is returning home. A male passenger stares at her for so long that his wife notices and calls Nadia a “Palestinian whore.” Nadia punches her and is sentenced to 60 days in prison.

1973: Nadia—who has married Fatima’s brother—gives birth to the child Miral. In her teens, Miral (Freida Pinto) comes to a life crisis: During the first Intifada, the Palestinian uprising of 1987-93, she must decide whether to participate in it or continue her education.

Miral is the title character of the beautiful and wrenching new film by artist-director Julian Schnabel, but Miral the movie is the story of the intersecting lives of the four women as they endure  the Palestinian catastrophe—Nakba, in Arabic. At the center of the film is the true account of how the real-life Hind Husseini (1916-1994) went on from that street-corner encounter to found an orphanage that became a school for Palestinian girls—Miral’s school, at that critical moment.

Moving back and forth through time and through the multiple lenses of Husseini’s life and the lives of Fatima, Nadia, and Miral, the film tells the story of the Nakba from 1948 through the Oslo Accords of 1990 to Husseini’s death in 1994. Almost matter-of-factly, and with little in the way of comment or embellishment, Schnabel relates accounts of dispossession, second-class citizenship, occupation—and resistance, struggle, and stubborn hope. Miral is thus doubly rare, both as a movie by a Jewish-American filmmaker from a Palestinian perspective and as one by a man from women’s perspective, and in both categories, it’s a triumph.

Yet the film’s greater significance may lie in its hint of a sea-change in public attitudes toward Israel-Palestine. It’s the fruit of a wide-ranging international collaboration. Produced under French and Indian auspices and directed by Schnabel, whose previous films include the critically acclaimed Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it was filmed from a screenplay adapted by Palestinian novelist Rula Jebreal from her own novel. The two lead roles, Husseini and Miral, are played, respectively, by Hiam Abbas, who has recently become Palestine’s best-known actor, and Freida Pinto, the Indian who played the romantic lead in Slumdog Millionaire. More recognizable faces appear in small, barely more than cameo roles: Vanessa Redgrave plays an American woman sympathetic to the Palestinian cause during the period immediately preceding the partition of Palestine in 1948, and Willem Dafoe plays her son, who is attracted to Hind when he meets her in 1947 and again later. The soundtrack includes songs by Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, and Pete Townshend. and

Last but hardly least, Miral is being distributed in the United States by the Weinstein Company, major Hollywood players whose production and distribution credits include such blockbusters and prestige films as Blue Valentine, The Reader, and films by Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen. Redgrave, of course, supported Palestine self-determination long before the first Intifada, but not everyone involved in Miral shares that history; in particular, the willingness of the Weinsteins to distribute it suggests a possible crack in the almost unanimous buckling by U.S. mainstream media to Israel’s insistent equation of criticism of its policies with anti-Semitism. For the record, this Jewish reviewer saw no anti-Semitism in Miral—only a plea for justice.

Miral ends with Husseini’s funeral in 1994. An afterword reminds us that the Oslo Accords of 1993 mandated an end to Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. “They have never been honored,” are the film’s last words.

If they ever are to be honored, public opinion in this country will have to tilt toward justice for Palestine. Movies like Miral can help that happen.

© 2011 Judith Mahoney Pasternak

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